Originally created 07/31/05

USDA orders schools to trim the fat



They look like regular corn dogs.

They taste like regular corn dogs.

The corn dogs the kids shovel into their mouths at school aren't the same ones their parents ate, though. They're more healthful than they were 15 years ago.

Just don't tell the kids that, or they might stuff those batter-covered wieners into their milk cartons in protest.

If the pupils knew they were getting something that was actually made with reduced-fat ingredients, said Aiken County Schools Food Service Director Joann Griffin, they wouldn't eat it.

"They put ranch dressing on everything," Ms. Griffin said. "Pizza and french fries. It's just amazing what they do, and, of course, their favorite meal is pizza and french fries."

Unbeknownst to the 15,000 pupils who eat lunch in Aiken County schools every day during the school year, school staffers work behind the scenes to increase their nutritional count.

Like the rest of the nation, Aiken County has to meet nutritional standards handed down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, requirements that get stricter every time they change.

The reason?

Childhood obesity rates that have skyrocketed in the past two decades.

Since 1980, for example, the percentage of children between 6 and 11 who are considered obese has more than doubled.

Because of that and similar fatty statistics, schools have been tapped to make sure kids get something healthy, even if it's only while they're at school.

The USDA changed its nutritional standards just last year, altering the food pyramid at the same time and adding an "activities" component.

Ms. Griffin said eating healthfully isn't enough. Physical activity is also key.

"We've all become couch potatoes," she said. "Kids come home, and their parents don't want them to go outside, so they can't play outside."

What do they do instead? They sit around and play video games, Ms. Griffin said.

Schools across the country now have to develop a "wellness policy," which is a program combining physical activity and nutrition for schools, by July 2006, on orders from the USDA.

Aiken County and other school districts in South Carolina also have to meet new state mandates similar to the USDA requirements by July 2006.

That sets standards for schools, such as how many minutes of physical education they have to provide to students.

But for now, Aiken County and other districts focus on making the meals they serve as healthy as possible.

Current standards by the USDA sets the nutrition threshold for school lunches at 30 percent of calories from fat and 10 percent of calories from saturated fat.

Richmond County's nutritional information is on the school district's Web site, www.richmond.k12.ga.us.

A look at Richmond County's school lunch menu found that the breakdown of their menu on the district's Web site is accurate.

The district delineates the nutritional value of the foods it serves - such as chicken nuggets, pizza, hot dogs and sandwiches - and shows the number of calories, fat grams, carbohydrates and protein grams.

Aiken County is working to do the same, Ms. Griffin said.

She said she hopes to have that information online by November.

Kristen Jaskulsky, a registered dietitian at the Medical College of Georgia, analyzed the meals served by Richmond County and found that they do what they can to reduce the fat in the meals.

"They're definitely trying to reduce childhood obesity and heart disease and diabetes that goes along with your child being overweight," she said. "I do think they're making a lot of changes and changes for the better."

Ms. Jaskulsky said the only problem she found was that the district uses a lot of processed meats and vegetables.

There's no standard for the amount of sodium, she said, and that is her main concern about processed foods.

"But they don't have any money," she said.

If school districts had more meal funding, perhaps they'd cut down on processed foods, she said.

Ms. Jaskulsky said that most school-age children need between 2,000 and 2,500 calories a day.

If 30 percent of those calories come from fat, then they should be getting around 67 to 80 grams daily.

Saturated fat should be limited to 10 percent of calories or less, she said, which is between 22 and 27 grams.

Children also should be eating carbohydrates that make up around 60 percent of their calories and protein, which is 10 percent of calories.

From Ms. Jaskulsky's analysis, the schools are using the same dietary guidelines recommended for adults. It's just being spread out over several days.

"It would be fine for kids," she said.

"It does meet them over a week, so it may not be over a day."

Reach Sandi Martin at (803) 648-1395, ext. 113, or sandi.martin@augustachronicle.com.

Children at risk

According to the American Obesity Association, 15.5 percent of adolescents between 12 and 19 are obese, while 15.3 percent of children between 6 and 11 are.That's nearly double the 7 percent of children who were considered obese from 1976 to 1980, and is three times the 5 percent of obese adolescents during the same time period.Health experts say childhood obesity can result in terrible health effects both now and once they reach adulthood, including asthma, diabetes and hypertension.